The Hornetsecurity Security Lab has observed a malspam campaign distribution TrickBot  that uses the Black Lives Matter movement as a lure to entice victims to open a malicious attachment. The TrickBot downloader document first injects shellcode into the
WINWORD.EXE process. From that shellcode, it then spawns a
cmd.exe process into which it again injects more of the same shellcode. This
cmd.exe process then downloads the TrickBot DLL and executes it via
The initial emails claim to be from a
Country authority, or
The email tells the recipient they can
Vote confidentially about "Black Lives Matter" or
Tell your government your opinion,
Give your opinion, and
Speak out confidentially about
"Black Lives Matter".
Attached is a file named
e-vote_form_0000.doc, further suggesting the email to be some sort of official means of voting.
However, the document only displays an image announcing a fake Office update and instructions to “Enable Editing” as well as to “Enable Content”:
If the instructions are followed, the malicious VBA macro in the document is executed and it downloads the TrickBot malware.
The initial portion of the infection chain (until the TrickBot malware is deployed) is depicted in this flow graph:
In the following analysis we will walk through each stage of this chain.
The VBA macro is protected against viewing in Word:
However, this “protection” only prevents Word from showing the VBA macro without a password. The VBA macro code is still accessible.
The first thing the VBA macro does is to display a fake error message:
Private Sub Document_Open() MsgBox "Error #80013123"
This results in the following pop-up:
This is likely an attempt to prompt user interaction in order to bypass sandbox detections. It could also be an attempt to hide the fact that there is no document. A victim may be satisfied by receiving this error and assume the document to be broken.
The macro uses
CreateThread to inject shellcode into the
WINWORD.EXE process. To this end, the code assembles one large string:
uriSubscriber = "i-j-[...]-a-a-a-" uriSubscriber = uriSubscriber & "i-l-[...]-a-a-" uriSubscriber = uriSubscriber & "g-k-a-a-p-p-h-f-p-i-[...]-o-g-c-c-p-k-h-c-g-j-h-d"
This string contains the encoded shellcode. It is then decoded via the following function:
Dim f() As Byte ReDim f(0 To Len(uriSubscriber) / 2 - 1) As Byte Dim sSmart As Long, regOptimize As Long For Each destEnd In Split(uriSubscriber, "-") If sSmart Mod 2 Then regOptimize = sSmart - 1 regOptimize = regOptimize / 2 f(regOptimize) = (CByte(Asc(destEnd)) - CByte(Asc("a"))) + f((sSmart - 1) / 2) Else regOptimize = sSmart / 2 f(regOptimize) = (CByte(Asc(destEnd)) - CByte(Asc("a"))) * 16 End If sSmart = sSmart + 1 Next
Finally, the decoded shellcode is set to
VirtualProtectEx, which was previously aliased to
extensionsComment, and then a thread is started with the address of the shellcode as its start address using
CreateThread, previously aliased to
Private Declare Function extensionsComment Lib "kernel32" Alias "VirtualProtectEx" ( _ iMail As Long, _ bConsole As Long, _ regFunction As Long, _ tablePosition As Long, _ colMail As Long) As Long Private Declare Function sMail Lib "kernel32" Alias "CreateThread" ( _ textTimer As Long, _ uriMail As Long, _ m As Long, _ dateMembers As Long, _ textTimer0 As Long, _ lServer As Long) As Long [...] sConsole = destN_ - angleTexture + UBound(f) q = extensionsComment(ByVal ipFunction, ByVal angleTexture, ByVal sConsole, ByVal PAGE_EXECUTE_READWRITE, ByVal VarPtr(extensionsComment0)) adsLogon = sMail(ByVal 0&, ByVal 0&, ByVal destN_, ByVal 2&, ByVal 0, ByVal 0&) adsScr 5000
The shellcode can most easily be extracted by breaking on
CreateThread in a debugger:
The shellcode running in the
WINWORD.EXE process first resolves several library functions. Then uses
CreateProcessA to run a
cmd.exe with the
pause command, causing the
cmd.exe to idle:
Next, the shellcode uses a classic
CreateRemoteThread sequence to do shellcode injection into the paused
cmd.exe /c pause process is likely used to avoid detection. A common technique used in process injection is to create a suspended (i.e., paused) process by setting the
CREATE_SUSPENDED flag during process creation, to then inject code into the created process, and resume it afterwards. In the case of the discussed shellcode, the code is injected as a thread into the paused
The injected shellcode is the same shellcode that was injected into the
WINWORD.EXE process. However, the entry point passed to
CreateRemoteThread is different, resulting into a different execution flow for the shellcode within the
The shellcode in the
cmd.exe process also resolves several library functions. Additionally, it decodes the TrickBot download URLs.
Next, the shellcode queries
GetSystemMetrics(SM_CYSCREEN) to get the display resolution. Then,
GetCursorPos is queried twice, with a call to
Sleep(0x1388) in between causing a 5 second delay.
This is likely done to verify mouse movement and thus avoid sandboxes.
The data is then encoded as a HTTP query string as follows:
An ID query string
&id=00000000 and the above system metrics query string are then appended to a URL to form the final download URL which is then queried via
In case the download is successful, the downloaded file is written to
C:\\Users\\<username>\\AppData\\Local\\system.rre and executed via
rundll32.exe %userprofile%/system.rre,Initialize using
system.rre file is the TrickBot DLL.
In case the download is not successful, the downloader sleeps and then a second download URL is tried.
Conclusion and Remediation
The double shellcode injection is likely used to avoid behavioral detection as
WINWORD.EXE does not usually download files from the Internet or execute
rundll32.exe. Hence, such anomalous behavior is more likely to be detected than
cmd.exe spawning the
rundll32.exe process. The query for the systems display resolution as well as the double query of the cursor position is also likely done to avoid delivering the TrickBot DLL to sandbox systems.
Hornetsecurity’s Spam Filtering Service with the highest detection rates on the market, has already detected and blocked the malicious TrickBot document based on a detection signature.
In case the basic detection signatures would not have blocked the emails, Hornetsecurity’s Advanced Threat Protection (ATP) would not have been impacted by the various anti-sandboxing mechanisms either. The human interaction simulation of the ATP sandbox successfully clicks the fake error message away for a complete execution of the malicious document:
It detects the processes being created by the document, as well as the process injections:
The human interaction simulation also results in the two queried cursor positions, sent as
cur2 to the TrickBot download server, to differ:
This way, Hornetsecurity’s ATP sandbox is not fooled by the various anti-sandboxing techniques.
Indicators of Compromise (IOCs)
||TrickBot downloader document|